A Secret Society History of the Civil War by Mark A. Lause (review)
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Civil War, Masonry, Secret societies

A Secret Society History of the Civil War. By Mark A. Lause. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Pp. 209. Cloth, $35.00.)

Mark Lause's book has made a timely landing. More and more, historians of the Civil War era have been looking to challenge its standard periodization while shifting the focus away from Virginia's battlefields. The popular success of military and political narratives that follow along [End Page 393] the same old ruts of domestic and military events has encouraged a kind of self-imposed, if lucrative, ghetto of Civil War era studies. Historians of postbellum America, especially Heather Cox Richardson, have extended Reconstruction to the early twentieth century, while weaving together military occupation of the ex-Confederacy with the violent ruptures throughout the industrial North and Europe, and the subjugation of western Indians. Scholars like Edward Rugemer have drawn the Civil War era backward and southward into the Caribbean, making the Haitian Revolution and Atlantic emancipation central to the road to secession. The field has long had a rich body of economic and diplomatic histories, but these have mostly focused on Britain and cotton. Now, by following the traces of secret societies, Lause has written a book that wanders through various temporal and political borders.

Lause traces the fundamental divisions behind the American Civil War to particular secret movements bred long before in the eighteenth-century Atlantic revolutions, and in the nineteenth-century struggles of post-Napoleonic Europe. Masonry, in particular, provided a template for how reformers could access supposed ancient secrets, dabble with radical doctrines, and galvanize a small body of clandestinely gathered adherents to reorder their world. Lause breaks these secretive bodies into two rough categories: those, like the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, who focused on a unified, secular nation, and insurrectionists like the French socialist, Louis Auguste Blanqui, who emphasized international cooperation between socially egalitarian republics (x, 16).

Secret Society History argues that clandestine organizations, on both sides of the Atlantic, have "formed the mortar of the nation-building process, the catalyst for new political parties." No wonder, then, that such societies would shape attempts to start and thwart national rebellion (x). After giving scant attention to Masonry in the American Revolution, and giving almost no attention to the explosion of secret societies and the violent response of anti-Masonry in antebellum America, Lause shifts to Europe's bloody conflicts in 1848, and the influx of embattled émigrées into America in the decade before secession. For Lause, Americans' various reactions to the foreign tumult (more than America's own history of secret societies) "reflected what became the immediate political crises that led to the Civil War," which was "in part" the ultimate clash of two visions, siphoned from European struggles: the nationalism of the middle class versus the nascent internationalism of labor reformers (16-17).

The book then winds through the shadowy, overlapping worlds of [End Page 394] American reformers who drew from these two European models. Gothic writer George Lippard created the Brotherhood of the Union, which mirrored the "radical nationalist idealism" from across the Atlantic. Influenced by secret societies in the Old World, Lippard wanted to create a "Palestine of redeemed labor" on the American continent through secret ritual, aggressive expansionism into territories occupied by Mexicans and Indians, and land reform. Radical land reformers and socialists "in and around" the Brotherhood moved steadily toward racial integration and abolitionism, which many found in the antislavery Free Democratic Party. But it was the Old World radicals who had washed up in Gotham that created "an urban, plebeian current" within the American secret society tradition (37). Hugh Forbes, the British warrior who had trained troops for Giuseppe Garibaldi, found refuge in New York City where in 1853 he began organizing fellow radicals, most of them immigrants. These circles overlapped with the Free Democrats, who, deeply stirred by the events in Bleeding Kansas, partly merged into the earliest movements of the city's Republican Party. Forbes's fellow travelers pushed hard for the interests of laborers and land for the landless. Instead of developing the vital connections between these radicals and the emergence...